England v West Indies, 2nd Test, Riverside, 2nd day May 15, 2009

Harker hits out at Test bidding system

As the rain fell on a miserable second day at Chester-le-Street it provided an apt backdrop to a game that has reignited the debate about Test cricket's future. Even if the sun had shone, it's unlikely the ground would have been even half full with punter

As the rain fell on a miserable second day at Chester-le-Street it provided an apt backdrop to a game that has reignited the debate about Test cricket's future. Even if the sun had shone, it's unlikely the ground would have been even half full with punters turned away by high ticket prices and unattractive opposition.

Factors such as the weather are out of anyone's control, but cold and damp conditions in May are hardly unexpected. David Harker, Durham's chief executive, has been left counting the cost of an ill-thought-out fixture, and has called for a rethink as to how Test cricket is marketed outside of the major contests.

"There has been a lot of comment about the lack of attendance at this game, but if you don't give them the right sort of product you can't build the audience," Harker told Cricinfo. "It doesn't just happen, you have to work at it.

"There has been talk of a Test championship, and I think that sort of development is necessary to add a context and make the games relevant to people who are going to be asked to part with hard-earned cash to come and watch them. A game that doesn't seem to matter to anyone, not least the players at times, isn't a great advert for a sport."

Durham, who bid £500,000 for the right to host this match, initially wanted an Ashes Test this summer, an understandable aim having held Test status since 2003. But that bid was trumped by Cardiff's massive offer of £3million to host a match backed by the Welsh Assembly. It has left the club trying to market a game that even the die-hards are struggling to get excited about.

"There's no ill-will towards Cardiff, I think it's important they play Test cricket there, but an Ashes Test here would have benefited the development of the ground," he said. "If it had come here we would have been able to do a lot more work this winter and we'd be looking at completing it next winter, rather than in two or three years' time."

Had Durham missed out on a Test altogether, those development plans, which include a hotel and an increased capacity of 20,000, would have been severely hit. They will still be able to plough the profits from this match back into the project, but that surplus has been severely cut by the poor attendance, which in turn is being blamed on ticket prices that peak at £65. But Harker said it was the bidding system that forced them to set such steep prices. "We had to ensure we would make back the bid cost."

"We put a compelling bid together," he said. "It was quite an aggressive bid by the standards of the time, but we were blown out of the water by Cardiff's ability to get the support of the Welsh Assembly. When a small region like this goes head-to-head with effectively a nation there's only going to be one winner."

England have won 65% of the Tests that have started in May, and have never yet lost in nine years - which at least means they use their home advantage - but that also has a lot to do with the quality of opposition served up as the summer starter. For all West Indies' fight and spirit in the Caribbean, they just haven't looked that bothered in this short series, while Chris Gayle has made it blatantly clear he'd rather be elsewhere.

Unlike most of the tours scheduled for this part of the season the current contest isn't part of the Future Tours Programme, but instead has been arranged to satisfy the ECB's multimillion-pound contract with Sky, after Zimbabwe's downgrading from Test status and Sri Lanka's withdrawal due to IPL commitments. Harker believes that the pursuit of big money will damage the game if it means international cricket is centred at those venues able to fork out huge sums of money for the most attractive fixtures.

"Why do people get so excited about the Ashes Tests? It can't just be about history and tradition, otherwise they would be supporting other Test cricket," Harker said. "It's about rivalry, the intensity of competition, it's about a spectacle. If two sides aren't going hard at each other you aren't going to have a spectacle."

"We don't want to be carping on, the fact is I believe Cardiff should have Test cricket. That bid has generated money for the whole of cricket so it isn't all bad news. But we have to be careful because if it just becomes about who bids the most are those types of bids sustainable? And also you'll end with most of your international cricket, certainly the choice games, being allocated to the more affluent South East."

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo

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